Letter from ACLU of Massachusetts to Logan Airport

ACLU of Massachusetts Letter Regarding
Facial Recognition Technology at Logan Airport


October 24, 2001

Virginia Buckingham
Executive Director
Massachusetts Port Authority
Logan Office Center
1 Harborside Dr.
East Boston, MA 02128


Dear Ms. Buckingham:

Recent press reports have suggested that Logan Airport is considering deploying facial recognition technology  apparently in combination with video surveillance -- in an attempt to improve security in the wake of the terrible events of September 11.  We are writing to suggest that you carefully weigh the shortcomings of this technology, and to request a meeting where we can present our views.

We certainly understand your need to increase security, and to look at every possible means for doing so. However, because facial recognition, especially in combination with video surveillance, is such a highly privacy-sensitive technology, we believe that before it is deployed it should at least be proven effective at increasing our safety.

To begin with face recognition schemes would be of no use unless there was a properly established database of suspects. It is our understanding that there is no such photographic database of terrorists.

Beyond that, studies by the government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and by the Department of Defense suggest that these systems, even when tested at far more ideal conditions than exist an airport like  Logan, would miss a high proportion of suspects included in the photo database, and flag huge numbers of innocent people, thereby lessening vigilance, wasting precious manpower resources, and creating a false sense of security.

Several government agencies have abandoned facial-recognition systems after finding they did not work as advertised, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which experimented with using the technology to identify people in cars at the Mexico-US border.

We are interested in working with Logan in a constructive manner to forge an effective airport security system that does not unnecesarily infringe on our liberties. We would appreciate a chance to meet with you and other appropriate officials so that our experts can present their views of facial recognition technology.


John Roberts
Executive Director
ACLU of Massachusetts

Barry Steinhardt
Associate Director
American Civil Liberties Union

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